This article originally appeared in Q392.
The story so far: The 1975 became one of the world’s biggest bands by stealth, while messianic frontman Matty Healy sank secretly into drug addiction. Sylvia Patterson meets the quartet in England and Los Angeles to hear how he pulled back from the abyss so as to push his group into a new galaxy.
June 2018. Angelic Studios, Northamptonshire. In the tranquil surroundings of the sun-parched English countryside, Matty Healy is fidgeting on a sofa in a fog of cigarette smoke, bleached-out hair on end, wearing what appear to be rags: a shredded artwork T-shirt, floral trousers and manky no-longer-white hotel slippers. He’s talking at three times the speed of average humans.
“You have to go to rehab because when you’re not on drugs, the only thing you can think about is getting the drugs,” he’s racing on, spelling out the thought process which took him to Barbados on Halloween 2017 to rid himself of the daily heroin smoking habit he’d acquired over the course of the previous four years (the majority of The 1975’s visible life). He chose Barbados “because it’s a long swim back to London.” He carries on, rapidly.
“Soon as you take the drugs you go, ‘Oh, I don’t need these fucking drugs’, so you go [breezily], ‘OK, I’ll go to rehab’, you get to rehab, week one, ‘I need the drugs, everyone’s a c**t, what you talking about, of course I need the drugs, are you mental?’”
He’s intense, gallows-funny, chaotic, chocolate-drop eyes staring straight into your own: you’re listening three times faster just to keep up.
As a literary adolescent and beyond, Healy fell hard for the romance of the heroin-strung-out creative, a Burroughs/Beat poet obsessive, just like Pete Doherty, “but I hated Pete Doherty, so I did it in secret”. Unlike with Doherty, rehab succeeded, now convinced he’ll be clean forever at 29 (he’s even given up booze, though the constant weed remains).
“I’d rather have the person’s life back than any kind of ‘cool’ legacy,” he notes, witheringly. “I’d rather have seen Kurt Cobain grow old and cringey and end up on I’m A Celebrity. Who gives a fuck about being cool? And with suicide, right, we tend to think they woke up one day and made a decision to do that. Instead of thinking they probably woke up every day finding ways to not do that. Listen, I’ve been there. I don’t have a lot of self-esteem. But if you’re into music authentically because it saved your life, that’s your job for other people. The purpose.”
In 2018 Matty Healy is less the comedy-megalomaniac of his mid-20s, more bracingly honest, sensitive and confessional, an almost alarmingly smart scatter of relentless kinetic energy. He drives the agenda of The 1975, the studio walls papered with the marketing artwork for third album, A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, including the quote: “If I don’t get to see the beauty of the end of culture: Then at least I’ve seen the culture of the end of beauty.” He powers through a dissection of our raging, “radioactive” contemporary digital discourse, quotes Carl Jung and Nietzsche, loathes dehumanising post-modern irony and believes in mission statements: this year, to culturally reinstate “sincerity and authenticity”.
In bands from the age of 10, he spent his adolescence indoors creating what would become The 1975 with his school-friends in Cheshire from the age of 13: co-songwriter/producer/drummer George Daniel, bassist Ross MacDonald and guitarist Adam Hann. With his sometime Byron-esque curls and pretty-boy features, Healy was a swoon-pop frontman archetype, but no labels would touch this band’s musical idiosyncrasy. In defiance they launched themselves, through their own label Dirty Hit in 2009 (initially set up by close friend and manager Jamie Oborne), their first two albums reaching Number 1 (The 1975, 2013) and the ludicrously-titled I Like It When You Sleep, For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (2016, also Number 1 in America). Colossal with teenage girls and bewildering to everyone else, they were cartoony ’80s retro-pop – Duran Duran, INXS, with echoes of One Direction – belying lyrical forensics on addiction, depression and madness. Two songs in 2016 hinted at greatness: the sublime, dreamscape single Somebody Else and the delicate acoustic She Lays Down, Healy’s eulogy to his mum’s postnatal depression and cocaine addiction (sometime Corrie actor and Loose Woman Denise Welch, who found the song “heartfelt, beautiful”). No typical pop fare here. Fans duly reciprocated. They etched tattoos of his lyrics, worshipped him as the Harry Styles of emo-pop. Lorde and Halsey covered their songs, they supported The Rolling Stones, sold out Madison Square Garden. The job description/purpose he’s just spelled out came so true, so fast, “it messed me up: letters from kids saying we’d saved their lives.”
The mainstream beyond youth culture, though, took notice only as recently as the Brit Awards 2017, winning Best British Group, their performance of chirpy synth-pop single The Sound intercut with outtakes from mocking debut album reviews (viewers thought they’d been cyber-hacked through the TV): “Is this a joke?” “Do people really still make music like this?” “Pretentious.” “Punch-your-TV obnoxious.” It was smart, funny, subversive and audacious but even today, oddly, they’re a peripheral presence. “The biggest band in the world nobody’s ever heard of?” baulks Healy, taken aback (in his world, understandably, he’s massive). “Well, everything we’ve done has been irregular.”
He’s irregular company. He talks so compulsively fast that he has what he calls “tics”, rapidly pressing the tips of all his fingers, one by one, onto the thumbs of both hands like the pincer movements of an insect. “And I’ve got this left, right, here, here, here thing,” he explains, pinching his shoulders, arms, knees, the kind of bizarre OCD routine you see from tennis titan Rafael Nadal. His speedy mind is specifically why he chose heroin: to cut the noise dead.
“I envy other people,” he laments, pointing to his bubbling brain. “It’s just going going going, you wake up, ‘Fucking hell, again.’ And the first time I did it [heroin] I was like, ‘Uuuuuuuh. There it is. There’s the silence. There’s the stillness.’”
This is Healy’s My Drug Hell story. He deliberately decided back in June to “stop lying” and embrace “the truth”, move past the “shame” of the rock’n’roll cliché which had made him “a worse writer, person, friend, partner, son, hurting people, and I care way more… about other people than I care about myself, I know that’s sad, but I really do.” In rehab, he received physical, heartfelt, difficult letters from his bandmates spelling out exactly how they felt, has taken voluntary weekly drug tests ever since as part of the band’s routine, “prison-style”, and been in therapy “all the time”. He tells a lengthy story about the horse called Favor which saved him back in Barbados, through equine therapy (which he initially rolled his eyes at). It took hours with a trainer to develop a relationship with the beautiful, black, elegant Favor who, at first, “didn’t give a fuck”, ignoring the dishevelled young human in the throes of withdrawal. Eventually, Favor wouldn’t leave his side, giving Healy “massively profound revelations”, seeing in his new hoofed pal “strength, power, independence, gracious with its time, without ego; human qualities I lacked. I learned to be a better person. It changed my life, y’know?”
How did that change the way you feel about yourself?
“Well… it’s like… to be a horse, isn’t it?” he muses. “You don’t have to tell a horse to love itself, d’youknowhatImean? Or to eat the right things, sleep at the right time. They do what’s best for themselves. And they don’t judge themselves for it. They just do it. Because it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
He then plays work-in-progress edits from A Brief Inquiry…, its lyrical themes “the negotiation of love, fear, sex and loss in the digital age.” It’s about how humans today are doing anything but what’s best for themselves, and judging themselves and everyone else because of it. There’s a subtext, adds Healy, of “a deep inquiry into… my fears.”
By the time it’s finished in three months’ time it could be the album of their generation.
Los Angeles, September 2018. Through a huge, ranch-style wooden gate high in the Hollywood Hills, Matty Healy ambles across the glass-fronted open-plan kitchen/living room of a residential studio wearing a new haircut, a short-sided, raven-black mop, and what appears to be a hessian potato sack. It’s a calf-length, oatmeal frockcoat which makes him look like Kirk Douglas in the 1956 Vincent Van Gogh biopic Lust For Life. He, though, sees “Phil Collins”, on Top Of The Pops in 1981, when Collins perched a paint pot atop his piano after his missus left him for a painter and decorator, and Healy was eight years from being born.
The 1975 are living here, finishing A Brief Inquiry… and beginning their fourth, Notes On A Conditional Form, due next May. Healy loves LA, “it’s relentlessly bright, positive, active, healthy, beautiful”, perfect for the millennial lifestyle defined by so-called self-care and wellness (apart from US-strength marijuana), including daily early morning workouts with a personal trainer. Healy’s recovery is going well, though he’s aware he’s cut himself off from triggers, and you wonder, three months on from My Drug Hell, how he feels about his public statements today.
“I just wanted to apologise to my mum,” he cringes, head down. “You can’t be a parent and have that kind of thing out there and not think, ‘Well, why didn’t I…,’” he falters. “You think it’s your fault, d’youknowhatImean? When it’s completely not.”
The kitchen-living room is busy: band members lounge with girlfriends, alongside blue-haired Filipino artist No Rome, signed to Dirty Hit, soon puffing on a gigantic, Wu-Tang-style brown blunt (which brings two words to mind: The Fear).
We repair to the wood-panelled studio where Healy plays the finished A Brief Inquiry…, fingers air-playing the tiniest touches, in perfect time. Of the four singles already released this year, mostly perky synth-pop (lead single Give Yourself A Try was a chiming amalgam of goth and pop), only one is astonishing, Love It If We Made It, a frenetic collage of contemporary references (“Consultation/Degradation/Fossil fuelling/Masturbation/Immigration/Liberal kitsch/Kneeling on a pitch/I moved on her like a bitch”), which is, notes a now-beaming Healy, “proper epic!” The rest is a revelation: dramatic whooshes of compressed, multi-vocal effects, scurrying beatbox stoner-freak psychedelia, as if Aphex Twin joined Kid A-era Radiohead, and a cultural first, a parable narrated by Apple’s Siri, where the character’s “best friend”, the internet, cheers him up by showing him “the people having sex” and agreeing with everything he says. There’s a portentous, Joy Division-esque murder ballad (Healy knows little about Joy Division, “Er, I’ve been to Macclesfield?”), another lyrically wrestles with Healy’s heroin-shaped “20 stone monkey on my back”, over echoes of Fleetwood Mac and, unfeasibly, ’70s easy-listening crooner Peter Skellern. Two songs comprise the finale: I Couldn’t Be More In Love, a glorious swoon of impassioned grief with an unapologetic, stand-up-for-the-key-change moment.
It might yet be the greatest X Factor winner’s song ever written and if that doesn’t sound much of a stretch, it could be a Michael Jackson ballad in the style of Harry Nilsson’s immortal Without You in 1971. In the soaring closer, I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes), Healy laments, “sing the blues, there’s no point in buying concrete shoes”, around a celestial falsetto, a thrum of ecstatic finality sliding into a Beethoven flourish, a cliff-hanging reverie-in-cello. “You want the Hollywood ending and then the ending,” thrills Healy, of the bewitching false ending. “Like The Graduate.”
It’s dramatic, sincere, ridiculous, often brilliant (definitely not a joke), impressively self-produced and creatively enhanced by what Healy calls “George’s OCD”. Healy, evidently, free from his narcotic flat-line, has become not only a better person but a significantly more imaginative musical force. If there are hints of Radiohead here, they’re more Coldplay in reverse: a promising young band who’ve spectacularly evolved, instead of creatively devolved, a band unafraid of the dark, and the real.
“The 1975 are incredibly representative of the millennial generation,” Matty Healy now declares, under azure skies, panoramic views of LA stretching out below. “And what is the millennial generation? It’s musically all over the place and it’s particularly mentally unwell.”
We’re on the studio boardwalk patio, on white leather sofas, Healy puffing on a spliff. Cannabis, since adolescence, has been a brain-stabilising force, “very much so”, even the “very strong” newly legal American kind. How come he doesn’t feel as if he’s on acid? “Years and years of tolerance.”
He’s simultaneously eating healthy, salad-based fare from a brown paper bag delivery, “Sorry, I’m starving!” He’s less manic today, no sign of those pincer-movement tics, but his mind speeds on, dissecting the manipulative forces behind online life, like listening to a triple-speed TED Talk tutorial on YouTube. He’s knowledgeable, scientific, knows how Google works (our searches are individualised, which reinforces information, limits our reach), how the digital “attention economy” works, using “the slot machine effect” to keep us hooked across Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, “mind-controlling the whole of society”. How we’re chemically addicted to the dopamine hits of validation (and emotionally skewered where there’s none), declares online addiction denial “identical” to drug addiction denial, “and the whole world is enabling you.”
He’s seen his generation’s self-esteem plummet, the rise of anxiety, depression, suicide, self-harm – “it’s astronomical, I’m sure that correlation is real.” Then there’s everything else. He was 12 years old when 9/11 happened, a member of Generation Spooked which understands the world is corrupt, run by crooks and charlatans (glaringly so today), who knows, as The Wire once told us, the game is rigged, y’all.
“It’s like the hypernormalisation idea of, ‘I know that you know that I know this is all fucked up,’” he scoffs. “So there’s a massive distrust.” After all these years in 21st-century pop, then – of the media-trained, of the pleasantly privileged and the thud of the average mind – we have among us a Mad Professor Of Pop. If there are echoes here of the young Richey Edwards, the long-missing guitarist/theorist of the Manic Street Preachers – his polemics, sloganeering and cynicism, at least – mercifully for him he’s also sensitive to existential wonder. He grew up boggling at cosmologist Carl Sagan’s immortal Pale Blue Dot speech, “as a kid, I got the insignificance”, an enormous toke seeing him flying down a wormhole to 1968.
“Quantum ideas, sub-realities are interesting but our interaction with other human beings, that’s the realest of the real real real,” he exhales. “What is real is this now, it’s us talking about what is real, is what is real. So to not make that as beautiful, exciting, unlimited and purposeful is pointless. The magic of reality I’m a massive fan of. I envy the faithful but I don’t need to be put here for any other reason than a mushroom.”
He enthuses over the rise of pop science, over author Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind (which induced “a bit of a nervous breakdown”) and socialism. “Karl Marx is sexy again,” he marvels. “Now, young people into the Kardashians are talking about socialism. It’s weird, man! Being progressive is popular.”
Matty Healy’s infinite theorising could be, in some ways, an inner-life avoidance device. He mentions his girlfriend, the 22-year-old Australian fashion model Gabby Brooks, whom he partly credits with his current stability.
“I love Gabby a lot, and she’s been really good for me,” he decides. “And it’s hard being with me because I’m so insular, y’know?”
It’s an odd thing to say: he seems so open.
“I’m not insular when you get in. But the gate’s kind of locked.”
His lifelong depression he describes as “brutal”, something he’s loathe to talk about (other than in his lyrics) because today everyone else does: artists, society, the young Royals. “It’s quite en vogue to do so. I don’t wanna be part of that.” With the gate locked, we talk about the culture of mental health anyway, about ubiquitous “toxic masculinity” and he succumbs to The Fear.
“I fear saying I don’t think it’s a great thing,” he frowns, perhaps mindful of a looming Twitterstorm. “I’d like to retract my statement. It’s too important. And it’s been a cornerstone in my life, in my music.”
Healy’s depression he calls “compression”: he’d react emotionally identically to news of “my dog dying, or winning the lottery. But I’ve seen worse, even in my family.” He wants to help, it’s what I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes) is about, now taking his role as potentially life-saving pop star not only seriously, but literally.
“People should talk about suicidal thoughts,” he now urges.
Because you’ve had those thoughts?
“All the time.”
All the time?
He sighs. “Whenever I get depressed, and that’s been regularly in my life, that’s a thing, right?” he explains. “It’s like pain relief. So I think it’s alright for people to understand that thinking about killing yourself… it’s not mental to think that. Thinking about it is very different to planning it. And if you’re a fan of The 1975, and if you’ve remotely planned it, then I’d love it if you saw somebody and told them exactly what happens with those thoughts. I’m not a suicidal person, I don’t wanna confuse people, but to think, ‘This is too hard, killing myself would be easier’ is something a lot of people think. And maybe wouldn’t wanna admit. And I’ll admit it freely.”
There’s a quote: “Don’t make a permanent decision for your temporary emotion.” Is that what you mean?
“Yeah,” he nods. “Your body is a set of chemicals and sometimes they don’t work very well. Time becomes agonising, like being on acid. You see people have their day and you feel like you’ve lived two weeks. Cos you haven’t moved, like you haven’t gotten out of bed. Learn to sit in it. Ride it out. Patience is a fucking virtue.”
In the last two years, music culture alone has known many suicides and drug-related overdose fatalities, accidental or otherwise, young or otherwise, all men: Chester Bennington from Linkin Park, Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit, Avicii, Lil Peep, Mac Miller. Healy knew Miller “a little bit”, they played Australia’s Big Day Out together in 2014, had lunch, smoked weed together. His face crumples.
“I don’t wanna ride on his death.” His eyes brim with tears, turns his head away.
“It really upsets me. It’s just sad, man. He was a good person. Incredibly talented.”
Ever since he’s been struggling, he admits, “with guilt”, for talking openly about opioids which may have been involved in Miller’s fatal overdose, feeling he might have helped “legitimise” Xanax specifically. “I feel like a wanker,” he says, for being truthful about drugs full stop. “But it was either that or keep lying and feel like a wanker anyway.” Now, he’s incensed.
“I hope each one [of the recent deaths] scares the shit out of everybody,” he exclaims. “It’s not a fucking game! The one in 5000 ecstasy pills within a batch at fucking Creamfields in the ’90s, that’s one thing. A fucking supply-and-demand industry that’s the same as fucking McDonald’s? Where anybody in a fucking Prius can sell you some dodgy Xannies? That is not a game. I had to be on a fucking island, with the sea stopping me from swimming back. It’s a culture that is not a fucking game.”
He looks shaken, forlorn. We talk about music instead.
Matty Healy’s random, decades-spanning musical taste began before the digital democracy even began, back in the 1990s. Aged 10, through his dad’s classic rock/soul/blues record collection (the actor Tim Healy, famed for playing Les/Lesley in Benidorm), “I knew more about The Moody Blues than fucking Joy Division, d’youknowhatImean?” His favourite ’90s song isn’t from Britpop or dance culture but the New Radicals’ You Get What You Give, from 1998. His first eureka moment was Michael Jackson at Wembley, aged eight, in 1997.
“My mum surprised me and I cried from the second she gave me the ticket till after the gig,” he beams, his spirit elevating at the meticulously-detailed memory. “Fucking, the show starts, right, silk screen up, his 20-foot shadow comes up, boof! In the hat, boom, shoom, gah! The screen drops, it’s him, everyone went [freezes, mouth agape] and then went mental… that’s Michael Jackson. I hadn’t seen him on Google Images, y’know? I remember dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing and dancing for fucking hours and hours. It was fucking sick.”
It’s the first time today he sounds truly young. He fell in love with music predominantly through ’80s movie soundtracks, “and that’s how I see my life, as a series of scenes, and what would the music be like for that scene? Not in a wanky way!” He loved both musicals and alternative rock singles, “Rise, Public Image, Just Like Honey, The Jesus And Mary Chain” and by 16 had “a hard-on for” obscure American emo, “Mineral, Sunny Day Real Estate, American Football”. Simultaneously, he loved Mariah Carey, Björk, Kate Bush, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, “so many influential women in my life” and especially Whitney Houston. “I was in love, oh young Whitney was my fucking dream!” he serenades, describing his original blueprint for The 1975 sound as “music which sounded like I Wanna Dance With Somebody but lyrics like Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen.” His suburban middle-class home life was “mental”, a ’90s musical party house revelling in booze and jokes (his dad had been a stand-up comic), liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality (his maternal grandad was a drag queen), hung out with his dad’s old welder mates and the odd showbiz pal (the first guitar he ever played was Mark Knopfler’s from Dire Straits). With zero interest in school or a proper job (post-school he worked in Chinese restaurants and call centres), his pop star dream was never in question. Asked simply where his unwavering drive comes from and he barely understands the question. Spells of silence whoosh around many faltering starts.
“You know what it is? I just fucking love music,” he announces. “The combination of music, culture and dialogue and how powerful they are. Because art and culture is the only thing that transcends…everything. It’s non-exclusive. Music is anathema to all the fucking bullshit. It’s the opposite of everything that’s wrong with the world.”
This Halloween, exactly one year on from his flight to Barbados, Matty Healy leaves LA to move out of his East London home, heading instead to West London, away from the drug enablers and triggers. He’s become enthralled by natural things, “I’m all about raw materials” (hence the hessian sack), his architect-built new home made entirely of concrete, “like a little concrete church, hyper-modern, beautiful, full of light.” Next April, he turns 30.
“I like maturing,” he decides. “It forces you to stand up, be a man, take control of yourself. Fucking do some exercise.”
Be like the horse?
“Be like the horse. I feel at my most authentic. I’ve made a record I’m happy to put out at 30. It doesn’t feel younger than that. I don’t think I look 30...”
Has it ever been a burden being good-looking?
“Oh!” he splutters. “I can’t answer that, can I? I don’t curate a world where it has much importance. That’s why I dress like a fucking painter and decorator.”
Back in the kitchen, Healy joins his bandmates and extended family, his best friend George Daniel toking from No Rome’s cartoon-sized blunt. It’s now dusk, a crescent moon hangs over the glittering metropolis below where humanity negotiates love, fear, sex and loss in the digital age. Right now there’s no 20-stone monkey on Healy’s back, only his giggling girlfriend literally on his back, her legs wrapped around his waist. For the young man in the Vincent Van Gogh frockcoat, who doesn’t believe in Hollywood endings, the sadness may never go. But tonight, in the real-time biopic of his life, Matthew Healy is Favor the horse. Doing what he’s supposed to do.